Thursday, September 2, 2004

NEW YORK — Ronald Reagan’s elder son said yesterday that his father believed “freedom is never more than one generation from extinction” as he delivered the four-day convention’s only official tribute to one of the party’s most powerful forces.

“My father believed that God had a plan for his life, for every life, and for the life of our nation,” Michael Reagan said in a five-minute speech interrupted repeatedly by thunderous applause.

“He wasn’t just a great communicator, he communicated great ideas. Where did his ideas come from? They came from his beliefs,” said Mr. Reagan, who often choked back tears during his tribute.

While organizers of the Republican convention have paraded liberal and centrist Republicans across the stage at Madison Square Garden — former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain among them, they have all but ignored the “Gipper.”

While the Republican patriarch passed away at 93 less than three months ago, his role in winning the Cold War and creating the “Reagan Democrats” voting bloc had been mentioned only fleetingly by just two of the dozens of speakers who have taken the podium.

Last night’s brief tribute — Mr. Reagan’s speech followed by a brief video — did not appear on prime-time network coverage, coming nearly a half-hour before cameras rolled at 10 p.m.

Whether the omission of the popular president was an oversight or a deliberate snub, one leading conservative found it “surprising.”

“The Republican Party owes an immense debt to Ronald Reagan because he was the man who made conservatism not only legitimate but fashionable and brought tremendous numbers of young people and Democrats and independents into the Republican camp,” Pat Buchanan told The Washington Times yesterday.

“I do find it surprising that there hasn’t been more on Reagan, but it is President Bush’s convention, not mine,” said Mr. Buchanan, who has written a new book “Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.”

Other conservatives are far more bitter about the omission.

“It’s a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ scenario at the Republican National Convention,” said Richard Engle, president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a conservative organization dedicated to preserving “the Republican wing of the Republican Party.”

“The Republican National Committee is responsible for Ronald Reagan’s absence, and that’s because the RNC is far more liberal than the average Republican voter and, frankly, than the average American voter,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to minimize the conservative wing of our party.”

Mr. Engle, whose group is raising funds to place an 8-foot bronze statue of Mr. Reagan in a Washington building named after him, said both Bush presidents owe their success at least in part to the man once dubbed “The Great Communicator.”

The 41st president served for two terms as Mr. Reagan’s vice president, and the 43rd president, cut his teeth in his father’s presidential campaigns.

“If it weren’t for Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. wouldn’t have been president, and George Bush Jr., as it were, would not be where he is now,” Mr. Engle said. “I think there are a lot of other areas in which the Bush campaign could show that they are building on the legacy of Ronald Reagan — abortion, tax cuts, family values. It’s definitely a mistake to exclude him the way they have.”

Some conservatives speculated that the party wants to distance itself from Mr. Reagan, who some feel could become a political liability after the ex-president’s widow, Nancy Reagan, publicly attacked Mr. Bush’s opposition to stem-cell research. The former president’s other son, Ron Reagan, was a featured speaker at the Democratic convention in July. He also supported such research.

Still, the least offended by the omission is Michael Reagan.

“My father would be surprised that he would even get 10 minutes out of four days,” he told The Washington Times before his speech.

“He would say this is a convention about this president, about this time in history, not about him. I think my dad would look at the overall picture and be very happy with this convention,” said Mr. Reagan, now a radio talk-show host.

He added that with or without homage to his father, the GOP knows Mr. Bush’s political position on important issues. “I know where the president stands, and I think Republicans do, too.”

Mr. Reagan, who was adopted, said in his speech that his father and mother, Jane Wyman, “were pro-life, and pro-adoption. Because they were, my father made me a Reagan. I’ve come to honor my father, not to politicize his name.”

He said his adoptive father was beloved by Americans because of his “personality — his sunny optimism, his humor, that twinkle in his eye.”

When Mr. Reagan said his father “believed freedom is never more than one generation from extinction,” he added: “With the blessings of liberty, come the responsibilities to defend it.”

The son closed his speech by quoting from his father’s farewell letter: “As I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life, I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

The 8-minute video was narrated by several distinguished figures — Nancy Reagan, President Bush, former President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Schwarzenegger, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Rev. Billy Graham.

After the video, Fred Ryan, a former chief of staff to Mr. Reagan, said Mrs. Reagan had been watching each night of the convention and had asked him to pass along her good wishes to all in Madison Square Garden.

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